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Bosnia: The Man Who Greeted Hillary

ELECTION 2008

Hillary Clinton and President Ganic

Hillary Clinton with former Bosnian president Ejup Ganic in 1996.

"I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base."

Hillary Clinton in a prepared foreign policy speech at George Washington University
March 17, 2008

Who knew that memories of snipers in Bosnia would become an issue in the presidential campaign?

Hillary Clinton has spent the last two weeks retracting her recollection that she had to run for cover to avoid sniper fire when she arrived at an airport in Bosnia in 1996. Once the original news footage of the visit surfaced, her comment made for embarrassing YouTube viewing, where the original news clip and multiple spoof videos have been watched by millions. Embracing an 8-year-old on the tarmac and listening to a poem is hardly duck and cover.

Still in damage control over her gaffe, Clinton mocked herself during an appearance on the "Tonight" show this week, telling host Jay Leno, "I was worried I wasn't going to make it. I was pinned down by sniper fire at the Burbank airport."

She continues to dismiss her mistake as a momentary lapse that should not obscure her credentials as a world leader.

But I wanted to delve a little deeper, beyond the "gotcha" video clip, so I phoned someone else who was there that day at the airport to greet Clinton. Back then, Ejup Ganic was Bosnia's president of the Muslim federation in the divided country. Today he runs an engineering college in Sarajevo. I spoke to him by phone from his office about meeting Hillary as she stepped off the plane. "I told her, 'Welcome to Bosnia -- we waited a very long time for this help. We are grateful and very happy to have the first lady of the United States here,'" he recalls.

"She should have probably chosen different words to describe it," says Ganic. But he points out that Bosnia was still a dangerous place in March 1996. The tarmac reception made him nervous, he said, and the girl poet was not his idea.

He confirms what Clinton has now acknowledged, "There was no small arms, sniper fire in the area, or threat of it. She should have probably chosen different words to describe it." But Ganic points out that Bosnia was still a dangerous place in March 1996. He said the tarmac reception made him nervous; the girl poet was not his idea.

The American first lady and Bosnian president met privately for 20 minutes that day. "She was very sharp and prepared -- more prepared than U.S. Senators who had come to Bosnia," Ganic says. "I knew I was sitting with someone with a first league education, a Yale-educated person. It was something more than just a ceremonial meeting with the first lady. I treated her as if she was the head of state."

As he spoke with Clinton about peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, which included 20,000 U.S. soldiers, Ganic says he stressed the need for the international troops to arrest the two most notorious war criminals in Europe since the Nazis: former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and his top general Ratko Mladic. Though a United Nations tribunal had issued international arrest warrants for the two men who led the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnia's Muslims, they were still at large, living freely and supported by local Serbs, who worshiped them as heroes. Ganic's language to Clinton was diplomatic, he says, but his message was clear: He expected the international forces to "reverse the ethnic cleansing and to capture the most serious war criminals."

Radovan Karadzic

Former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic has been charged with war crimes and remains at large.

"She told me that the United States was committed to having Bosnia become a normal country," he says. "She told me that America was behind us. I thought it was a very good meeting."

As a journalist, I've spent a lot of time chasing the ghosts of snipers in Bosnia, particularly those who gave the orders to kill. Today, the main city, Sarajevo, has returned from the dead. But it's sobering to walk past bullet-scarred buildings and graveyards filled with those who died during the 1992 to 1996 siege of Sarajevo, when the city was surrounded and attacked by Bosnian Serb snipers. Ten thousand Sarajevans perished, including 1,000 children during that nightmare time.

General Mladic and Bosnian Serb president Karadzic oversaw the operation. Mladic said his goal was to drive the Muslim inhabitants below "out of their mind." Of course, there was a lot more to the war in Bosnia than Sarajevo. An estimated 200,000 people were killed. But the spectacle of a once-stunning city, an Olympic city, forced to go without electricity and water, her streets a sniper's shooting gallery, came to symbolize a terrible war.

General Ratko Mladic

Serbian general Ratko Mladic, who has evaded arrest, is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

There is affection toward Bill Clinton in Bosnia; you can find his photo on display in many restaurants. But there are also hard feelings toward him. I think it's the kind of rage one feels when a person of high principle disappoints.

As Ganic explains, "President Clinton remains popular here. He helped us. But he didn't help that much. We were an experiment in geopolitics. They waited as long as they could while the patient was dying on the operating table. They waited for 200,000 people to die. Even during Srebrenica [the notorious massacre in 1995], while the Serb forces were murdering people for five or six days, they still didn't use international forces to intervene."

"In my view," he continues, "it wasn't because of the president or a few cabinet ministers that America got involved. It was because of the American people, and that is to whom we were most grateful. I believe that ordinary people just got tired of seeing blood on the streets in Sarajevo."

As a presidential candidate back in 1992, Clinton promised more American leadership for an unraveling situation in Bosnia. He said he would end an arms embargo that was hurting the badly outgunned Bosnian Muslims. But he changed his mind once in office. Many suspect that the failed U.S. peacekeeping operations in Somalia, tempered his will with Bosnia. Clinton began saying he wanted Europe to take more of a leading role and argued that lifting the embargo would "convert a complex ethnic war into an American responsibility."

As a presidential candidate back in 1992, Bill Clinton promised more U.S. leadership for an unraveling situation in Bosnia. He said he would end an arms embargo that was hurting the Bosnian Muslims. But he changed his mind once in office.

Despite bipartisan calls in Congress to end the embargo, Clinton never wavered until late 1995. After the Srebrenica massacre, he finally ordered U.S.-led NATO bombings of key Serb positions, brokered the Dayton peace accords, and eventually sent roughly 20,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia as peacekeepers.

It was those peacekeeping troops that Hillary Clinton was visiting in Bosnia in March of 1996 when she landed at the Tuzla airbase. It was not the safest place in the world, but as we know, she did not have to duck sniper fire. "So I made a mistake," she now says about her sniper comment. "That happens," she told the press corps. "It proves I'm human, which, you know, for some people, is a revelation. This is really about what policy experience we have and who's ready to be commander in chief."

Candidate Hillary Clinton has stressed her experience in Bosnia on several occasions to underline her toughness and foreign policy experience. What does seem a fair question to me is, Where was her 3 am judgment in the five years after she landed in Tuzla? What did she do to encourage the arrests of Karadzic and Mladic, to show that America really had Bosnia's back?

Ganic tells me, "The focus on Iraq by the current U.S. administration has left us forgotten. We're looking forward to working with whoever wins." He says if candidate Hillary Clinton becomes President Hillary Clinton, he is confident that she will "finish the job in Bosnia" and arrest Mladic and Karadzic. He adds, hopefully, that if McCain or Obama are elected, they too would surely find a way to carry out the arrests.

Perhaps. Or perhaps, a new administration will try to forget those snipers in Bosnia and those embarrassing memories of the men who got away. It's a fair question to ask Clinton, Obama and McCain as they seek to become our new commander in chief.

In 2006, Joe Rubin produced the FRONTLINE/World broadcast story, "The Men That Got Away," about the former Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who have evaded arrest on charges of committing war crimes.

REACTIONS

(anonymous)
This is a very engaging article. It provides a unique perspective. It is more evidence to support that we don't want Clinton in the White House.

Marjorie B. Hume - Washington, DC
I'm afraid Senator's Clinton's erroneous recollections of her Bosnia trip are indicative of much more than a simple 'mistake'. As Rubin poses, how have her actions aligned with her words then or since? I can't help but see her keeness to relay her phantom memory as nothing more than a cynical political maneuver. Her words and actions following her trip have done little to honor the real victims behind the real bullets in Bosnia -- and the all too real memories of the Bosnian people.

Henry Zaretsky - Sacramento, California
Good analysis. Clearly, Senator Clinton's policy experience, at least in foreign affairs, falls short of what she professes. And, she is way too careless in her recollections. If Obama had made this kind of gaffe, we would never hear the end of it from the Clinton campaign. That said, should she get the Democratic nomination, this country and the world would be far better off with her as President than the conservative, hot-tempered, single- issue, domestic-policy-challenged Republican alternative.

Barbara Ramm - Sacramento, Ca
I think it's an even handed article, quite complimentary to Senator Clinton, but also acknowledging the truth. We have a way to go in honoring our commitments abroad. Thank you for pointing it out.